Richard Branson's history of failed rocket launches revealed

Richard Branson’s history of failed rocket launches: As historic Cornwall mission is scuppered, MailOnline reveals how the billionaire’s Virgin space ventures have been plagued by setbacks – including the death of a pilot in 2014

  • MailOnline analysis shows space launch success rate of Richard Branson’s Virgin
  • Compares Virgin Orbit and Galactic missions to those of SpaceX and Blue Origin
  • Branson has a 91 per cent success rate, Musk 97 per cent and Bezos 95 per cent
  • Virgin Orbit’s most catastrophic failure happened in 2014 when a pilot was killed

Not content with winning the billionaire space race and experiencing the feeling of weightlessness himself, Sir Richard Branson wants to conquer low-Earth orbit and make it his own.

The Virgin founder plans to carry out his first space tourism mission from the US later this year and has grand visions of tapping into the £4 billion satellite industry, in part with the help of the new £20 million Spaceport Cornwall.

But those aspirations were dealt a bitter blow on Monday night when Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, which had hitched a ride on a specially-adapted 747 jumbo jet that took off from the Newquay site, failed to reach orbit and was ultimately lost.

It is not the first time Branson’s Virgin Orbit or Virgin Galactic space ventures have endured failed launches, and it probably won’t be the last — but how does their success rate compare to the likes of SpaceX, Blue Origin and NASA’s now retired Space Shuttle programme?

Lagging behind: Analysis by MailOnline reveals that Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson trails billionaire rivals Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos when it comes to launch success rate percentage. His company has had seven failed launches and 74 successful missions, compared to six and 201 respectively for Musk’s SpaceX and one and 22 for Bezos’ Blue Origin. NASA’s Space Shuttle programme carried out 133 successful launches, losing Challenger in 1986 and Columbia on re-entry in 2003

In 2021, Sir Richard Branson flew to the edge of space in his Virgin Galactic rocket plane — beating Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Space X’s Elon Musk in the billionaire space race

Cash-strapped Virgin Orbit is now fighting for its survival as it hurriedly probes what went wrong and why the first ever satellite mission launched from UK soil ended in failure.

Shares in the firm plummeted by as much as 30 per cent as the drama unfolded in front of the eyes of the world.

This loss of more than $200 million (£164 million) comes just months after Virgin Orbit raised ‘substantial doubt’ about its future amid dwindling cash supplies.

Branson’s Virgin Group was forced to inject $25 million (£20 million) into Virgin Orbit at the start of November, just days before the company reported a net loss of $139.5 million (£117 million) for the first nine months of 2022. 

British taxpayers’ money was among the £20 million that has so far been thrown at the Spaceport Cornwall project. 

The bad news for Branson is the answer is not that favourably. 

Analysis by MailOnline reveals that the Virgin owner trails billionaire rivals Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos when it comes to launch success rate percentage.

He sits at 91.35 per cent, while Musk’s SpaceX has logged an impressive 97.1 per cent and Bezos a more than respectable 95.65 per cent.

NASA no longer carries out its own launches — instead relying on Russia and now private companies such as SpaceX following the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011.

But for comparison, that programme had a launch success rate of 98.51 per cent.

There were 133 successful Space Shuttle missions but a total of 14 astronauts perished following the loss of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

Branson’s most high-profile and catastrophic space launch failure occurred in 2014, when Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed in California’s Mojave Desert, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold.

The craft was flying a manned test when it experienced what Virgin Galactic described at the time as ‘a serious anomaly’. 

It is one of five launch failures in the 19-year history of Virgin Galactic, compared to 70 successful missions.

Branson, 72, had believed in 2004 that commercial space travel was just three years away, but a string of failures followed which plunged the future of Virgin Galactic into doubt.

In 2007, three people were killed and several others seriously injured when a tank of nitrous oxide detonated and destroyed a test stand.

Devastating: Britain’s historic first ever orbital space launch on UK soil dramatically failed last night, after Virgin Orbit revealed that an ‘anomaly’ had prevented its rocket from reaching orbit. Pictured is the moment the rocket ignited

LauncherOne never reached its target altitude to release a payload of nine satellites into orbit and was ultimately lost — either burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere or breaking apart over the north Atlantic

A further four years after that Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo malfunctioned during re-entry, although its pilots managed to correct the problem. 

There were also two minor setbacks in 2016 involving attempts to carry out the first glide flight for the company’s VSS Unity space plane, while Virgin drew the ire of the US Federal Aviation Administration in 2021.

The regulator accused the rocket firm of not providing the necessary information about Branson’s momentous flight to space in July of that year, after it deviated from its assigned airspace on descent.

The Federal Aviation Administration later lifted a no-fly order on Virgin Galactic in September 2021. 

Virgin Orbit, which was formed in 2017 and has a launch system that has been in operation for just over two years, has now experienced gremlins on 33 per cent of its flights.

Branson’s most high-profile and catastrophic space launch failure occurred in 2014, when Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed in California’s Mojave Desert, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold

The craft was flying a manned test when it experienced what Virgin Galactic described at the time as ‘a serious anomaly’

WHAT CAUSED VIRGIN GALACTIC’S 2014 CRASH THAT KILLED ONE PILOT AND INJURED ANOTHER?

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo – a plane designed to run the first ever passenger flights into space – split into pieces as it fell to Earth over California’s Mojave Desert during a test flight in October 2014.

The crash killed 39-year-old pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injured co-pilot Peter Siebold, 43, while debris from the disintegrated aircraft was spread over a wide area.

The vehicle broke up after Alsbury unlocked the craft’s tail wing braking system early, which led to a sudden increase in aerodynamic forces as it passed through the sound barrier.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo – a plane designed to run the first ever passenger flights into space – split into pieces (right) as it fell to Earth over California’s Mojave Desert during a test flight in October 2014

A 2015 NTSB report found that the co-pilot unlocked the so-called feathering system early at Mach 0.92 instead of the intended speed of Mach 1.4.

The feathering system helps to increase drag and slows the spacecraft down for re-entry. 

Simply unlocking the spacecraft’s brakes shouldn’t have applied them, but investigators said that might have happened anyway as a result of aerodynamic forces.

The crash killed 39-year-old pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injured co-pilot Peter Siebold, 43, while debris from the disintegrated aircraft was spread over a wide area

The resulting stress may have contributed to the spacecraft’s destruction. 

Investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said no safeguards were built into system to overcome the error of the co-pilot.

It took two years for the company to regain approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly SpaceShipTwo again.

As well as the misfiring of the first orbital space launch on British soil last night, its maiden mission in the US also failed, while in between were four successful flights.

The inaugural mission in 2020 went wrong a few seconds after the ignition of the LauncherOne rocket. It was blamed on a premature shutdown of the first stage engine, caused by a break in a propellant feed line, and meant the rocket did not reach orbit. 

But spaceflight is notoriously hard, so what about Virgin’s rivals?

The videos of SpaceX’s reusable rocket boosters either exploding on the launchpad or while attempting to land on a drone ship have been much publicised.

It took the company about four years of trying before a Falcon 9 rocket successfully touched down unscathed in 2015, with SpaceX dramatically scaling up its launch capabilities since then.

Musk’s company has now sent 201 rockets up to space, having had five attempted lift-offs go wrong and one partially fail. 

The videos of SpaceX’s reusable rocket boosters either exploding on the launchpad or while attempting to land on a drone ship have been much publicised

Musk’s company has now sent 201 rockets up to space, having had five attempted lift-offs go wrong and one partially fail

SpaceX is the market leader in terms of quantity and its Dragon spacecraft is currently being used by NASA to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Musk’s great rival Jeff Bezos – who was beaten into space by Branson by just nine days in 2021 – is somewhat playing catch-up, despite having also sent several celebrities on suborbital flights aboard his New Shepard rocket.

He may have a better success rate than Branson, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Blue Origin has only carried out 23 flights of its New Shepard rocket so far and had one failure — which is why Bezos’ success rate is up at 95 per cent.

That mishap came only a few months ago, when the rocket company was forced to abort a space mission mid-flight.

Its uncrewed booster malfunctioned around a minute after leaving the launchpad in Texas in September, the second such ‘anomaly’ Blue Origin has experienced in its 22-year history.

The first occurred in 2015, when a New Shepard booster crashed instead of landing.

However, its uncrewed capsule successfully reached suborbital space and returned safely, so it cannot be recorded as a failure.

Blue Origin has only carried out 23 flights of its New Shepard rocket so far and had one failure — which is why his success rate is up at 95 per cent. That mishap came only a few months ago

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos was beaten into space by Branson by just nine days in 2021 

It should be pointed out that spaceflight is never easy and despite Branson’s failures he is still right at the forefront of the race to regularly fly tourists to space, once again hoping to emerge victorious over rivals Bezos and Musk.

Virgin Galactic’s next test flight – Unity 23 – is expected to happen later this year, although it has been repeatedly delayed, and commercial flights will start after that. 

Despite its failure in Cornwall, Virgin Orbit is scheduled to carry out two more satellite launches in the Mojave Desert in January and February, along with four others later in 2023.

Both the UK Space Agency and Spaceport Cornwall have said Virgin Orbit will try another launch in the ‘near future’, but no timeline has been provided by Branson’s company.

It says it will ‘work tirelessly’ to establish the cause of the failed UK launch, but questions remain over the viability of the cash-strapped company’s future.

Shares in Virgin Orbit plummeted by as much as 30 per cent as the drama unfolded in front of the eyes of the world last night, wiping $200 million (£164 million) off the firm’s value.

At the start of November, Branson’s Virgin Group was forced to inject $25 million (£20 million) into the company just days before it reported a net loss of $139.5 million (£117 million) for the first nine months of 2022.

NASA launched 133 successful Space Shuttle missions but seven astronauts perished in the Challenger disaster in 1986

The Space Shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry in 2003, killing all seven astronauts onboard

If you enjoyed this article…

Check out this blow-by-blow account of how the historic first orbital launch from British soil FAILED after Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket suffered an ‘anomaly’

What happens next for Virgin Orbit? Richard Branson’s cash-strapped firm fights for survival as it probes what went wrong with Cornwall rocket 

Virgin Orbit’s failed space launch EXPLAINED: How LauncherOne rocket carrying nine satellites experienced an ‘anomaly’ 

THE BILLIONAIRE SPACE RACE: HOW BRANSON, MUSK AND BEZOS ARE VYING FOR GALACTIC SUPREMACY

Jeff Bezos in front of Blue Origin’s space capsule

Dubbed the ‘NewSpace’ set, Jeff Bezos, Sir Richard Branson and Elon Musk all say they were inspired by the first moon landing in 1969, when the US beat the Soviet Union in the space race, and there is no doubt how much it would mean to each of them to win the ‘new space race’.

Amazon founder Bezos had looked set to be the first of the three to fly to space, having announced plans to launch aboard his space company Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft on July 20, but Branson beat him to the punch.

The British billionaire became Virgin Galactic Astronaut 001 when he made it to space on a suborbital flight nine days before Bezos – on July 11 in a test flight.

Bezos travelled to space on July 20 with his younger brother Mark, Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old physics student whose dad purchased his ticket, and pioneering female astronaut Wally Funk, 82.

Although SpaceX and Tesla founder Musk has said he wants to go into space, and even ‘die on Mars’, he has not said when he might blast into orbit – but has purchased a ticket with Virgin Galactic for a suborbital flight.

SpaceX became the first of the ‘space tourism’ operators to send a fully civilian crew into orbit, with the Inspiration4 mission funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman. 

His flight was on a Dragon capsule and SpaceX rocket built by space-obsessed billionaire, Elon Musk and took off for the three day orbital trip on September 16 – going higher than the International Space Station. 

SpaceX appears to be leading the way in the broader billionaire space race with numerous launches carrying NASA equipment to the ISS and partnerships to send tourists to space by 2021.  

On February 6 2018, SpaceX sent rocket towards the orbit of Mars, 140 million miles away, with Musk’s own red Tesla roadster attached. 

Elon Musk with his Dragon Crew capsule

SpaceX has also taken two groups of astronauts to the |International Space Station, with crew from NASA, ESA and JAXA, the Japanese space agency. 

SpaceX has been sending batches of 60 satellites into space to help form its Starlink network, which is already in beta and providing fast internet to rural areas. 

Branson and Virgin Galactic are taking a different approach to conquering space. It has repeatedly, and successfully, conducted test flights of the Virgin Galactic’s Unity space plane. 

The first took place in December 2018 and the latest on May 22, with the flight accelerating to more than 2,000 miles per hour (Mach 2.7). 

More than 600 affluent customers to date, including celebrities Brad Pitt and Katy Perry, have reserved a $250,000 (£200,000) seat on one of Virgin’s space trips. The final tickets are expected to cost $350,000.

Branson has previously said he expects Elon Musk to win the race to Mars with his private rocket firm SpaceX. 

Richard Branson with the Virgin Galactic craft

SpaceShipTwo can carry six passengers and two pilots. Each passenger gets the same seating position with two large windows – one to the side and one overhead.

The space ship is 60ft long with a 90inch diameter cabin allowing maximum room for the astronauts to float in zero gravity.

It climbs to 50,000ft before the rocket engine ignites. SpaceShipTwo separates from its carrier craft, White Knight II, once it has passed the 50-mile mark.

Passengers become ‘astronauts’ when they reach the Karman line, the boundary of Earth’s atmosphere.

The spaceship will then make a suborbital journey with approximately six minutes of weightlessness, with the entire flight lasting approximately 1.5 hours.

Bezos revealed in April 2017 that he finances Blue Origin with around $1 billion (£720 million) of Amazon stock each year.

The system consists of a pressurised crew capsule atop a reusable ‘New Shepard’ booster rocket.    

At its peak, the capsule reached 65 miles (104 kilometres), just above the official threshold for space and landed vertically seven minutes after liftoff. 

Blue Origin are working on New Glenn, the next generation heavy lift rocket, that will compete with the SpaceX Falcon 9. 

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